Skill-Building Projects

Article - September 13, 2010

This topic was inspired by a question from viewer Tony. He writes:

“I am just starting out, as a recreational woodworker, are there any key projects / techniques that you would advise I master as a way of growing my skill set. I am planning to build my own cabinetmaker’s bench later this year and currently am working towards mastering the skills I will need for this.”

And here was my reply:

Believe it or not, one of the best beginner projects that will teach you some basic, yet critical, skills is a cutting board. A good quality cutting board requires you to mill numerous pieces of stock perfectly flat and straight and then glue them up without any gaps. When its all said and done, the board should be perfectly flat and smooth. If you can master a cutting board, then you are in pretty decent shape for working on a classic workbench top. Obviously, you’ll need to scale things up just a bit. :) If you are interested in building a cutting board, check out A Cut Above.

Now the other skill I would try to master is probably the classic mortise and tenon joint. You will probably make more mortise and tenons than any other joint in woodworking. Find a system that works for you and stick with it for a while. You can make them with a tablesaw, the router table, a hand held router, a specialty jig like the FMT or WoodRat, or even simply use a drill, a hand saw and a chisel. Regardless of how you make them, its important to be comfortable and competent in the mortise and tenon’s construction. It will pay off big time down the line. You can learn more about making mortise and tenon joints in these two videos: Tenons Anyone Pt. 1 and Tenons Anyone Pt. 2

And if you are going to be making a lot of cabinets, there are a number of things you should start getting practice one, such as dealing with large sheets of plywood. This is not as easy as it would seem and requires a good bit of strategy in the small shop. See one method for doing just that in my Low Entertainment Center video. You should also be comfortable making lots of dados and rabbets. This is something you can do with either the tablesaw and a dado blade or simply use a router. A good way to practice these techniques is to simply make some shop cabinets. Its excellent practice and you’ll end up with some very useful storage when its all said and done.

Obviously, the list can go on and on. But those are the things I would teach a student if they came into my shop asking that very question. And just as an FYI, I wouldn’t get too hung up on “mastering” anything at this point. The fastest way I find to learn is to research and understand a concept, apply it in the shop within the context of an actual project, and then move on to the next thing. There is nothing wrong with practicing, but I am a big fan of practicing “on the job”. You’ll never learn more than you do from your mistakes. And mistakes never hurt as bad as they do on real projects. So for me, the best learning experiences come from actually doing. Of course I recommend using scraps to confirm machine setups before cutting the good stock and I always make a few warm-up cuts before taking vital strokes with hand saws, planes and chisels. But that’s about all the “practice” I do.

And if you are worried about messing up, GOOD! That’s the point. Just don’t forget that many of the projects we would consider “failures” would make our family members and friends very happy. Many of my workshop “oops” projects have found a happy home in a relatives house. Our eyes tend to be significantly MORE critical than everyone else’s.

So what projects do you guys recommend for a beginner? What projects helped you become a more skilled woodworker?